What Does it Mean to be a Strong Person?

I was a sensitive child or so I was told. And like most people I equated sensitivity with fragility and I grew up believing that I was weak — not fully equipped to maneuver the harshness of the world successfully and gracefully. Labels matter because they can be definitive especially when they come from figures we respect and look up to, such as parents, teachers, and religious leaders. They are powerful enough to shape a child’s future. It wasn’t until adulthood that I was able to make a breakthrough and unshackle myself from those limiting beliefs. Now as an adult, I still consider myself a sensitive person, but the difference is I view sensitivity in a completely different light.

Over the past several weeks, there was one question that I kept thinking about: What do we exactly mean when we say that someone is a strong person? By strengths, if we are referring to character strengths such as kindness, truthfulness, courage, humility, fairness, and so on, then I am in complete agreement. In fact, as a society I don’t think people with character strengths are noticed and appreciated enough. But there is another type of “strength” that we fiercely promote and demand which I consider to be unhealthy. The kind of strength that incessantly demands cheerfulness, gratitude, and positivity even when your world is closing in on you. The kind of strength that doesn’t allow you to be in touch with your tenderness and pain and confusion but that always insists that you put on a brave face. The kind that mocks you when you ask for help or seek comfort and requests that you do everything on your own. The kind of strength, as Allain de Botton wrote in his latest book, that robs you of your humanity and your human right to find a corner in a room, curl up into a ball just like you used to do when you were a child, and weep — for your unanswered prayers, for the civilians that are now losing their lives, and for everything.

Navigating life can be difficult enough but we make it even more unbearable, I am quoting Allain de Botton again, “by pretending to be competent, all-knowing, proficient adults long after we should, ideally, have called for help.” One reason why we shy away from experiencing and feeling a different range of emotions is because of the value judgments we attach to different emotions. Because we attach negative judgments to emotions like anger and fear, for example, we resort to denial and suppression not knowing that by disowning some parts of ourselves we become disconnected from both ourselves and others.

If there is one practice that I found liberating over the last few years, it is approaching all my emotions, even the ones that cause me pain and discomfort, with curiosity and openness. After all, if you think about it, had it not been for fear, for example, we would have played with venomous snakes as if they were toys, and similarly without anger, we would not have taken any action when we were taken advantage or when our rights are violated. Circling back to my initial point, my current view is if you are alive, you are strong, period. A few years ago while contemplating all the things humans endure from birth to death, and I wrote this on my social media page:

Ah, to be human. If you are a human being, you have my utmost respect.

From meaninglessness to finding meaning,

From the joy of childbirth to the deep sorrow of burying a child,

From the ecstasy of finding love to the heartbreak of losing it,

From identity loss to a sense of wholeness or being stuck somewhere in the middle,

From isolation to the relentless pursuit of one’s place of belonging,

Even when things appear rosy and orderly, the fear of that other shoe dropping lurks somewhere in the back of our psyches.

All of these are human conditions that somehow bind us all together, and yet, most of us are undeterred, soldiering on day and night with courage and bravery to keep our heads above water, to survive, and make a difference in our respective little corners. For these and other many more reasons, I applaud you. You have my respect.

Feven Seifu is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Minnesota. If you have any writing ideas or topics you would like her to address, please feel free to contact her at fseifu@umn.edu

Photo by Ayyub Jauro

For more blogs: Feven Seifu

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